Coney Island sends guests to hell
During my recent interview on coasterradio.com, the show host asked about some classic Coney Island attractions that didn’t get much detail in my Imagineering an American Dreamscape book. One of these was Creation, a thematic, immersive experience that was moved to Dreamland park in 1905 after the St. Louis World’s Fair ended. After witnessing the awe-inspiring birth of the world, visitors could then walk across the way and get sent straight to hell (and back) in Hell Gate. You couldn’t miss it, with the demonic satan glowering over the top of the building, its bat wings spread across the entire width of the facade. While standing in the queue, the open-front building clearly showed the poor souls ahead of them whose boats were savagely caught up in a swirling, deadly fifty-foot whirlpool that suddenly—before their very eyes—sucked them down out of sight into the bowels of the earth.
Well of course, we all want a load of that, so everybody pays their ten cents and eagerly awaits their turn to see what satan has in store for them. Turns out it’s an iron and wood trough that spirals the boats down below the surface, into a water channel where they float through scenes depicting the underworld. Constructed of paper mache, everything is dark red, with paper fire flaming everywhere. Satan appears, sitting on a “rock” and rubbing his hands expectantly as would any greedy downtown merchant. And why not? Business is booming, starting with a girl who is admiring a new hat in the mirror…until demons grab her and fling her into the pit (another trough which whisks her out of sight). Her screams can be heard amidst the fog effects and paper fire. A young man is next, making the fatal mistake of drinking whiskey, which sends him to eternal judgment as well. Satan continues to enjoy the spectacle, snickering as his next victim is caught stealing a few coins from a companion’s purse. Into the pit.
The sermon begins, explaining how such vices lead one to the fate they have just witnessed. Attending church is far better for the soul (and cheaper, too). And then the clincher: “Gentlemen, if you wish morality to work on men’s souls with the force of castor oil, you ought to pay your preachers more.” Well, I figure preachers probably ought to get a bit more than they normally do, but I don’t know much about the forces of castor oil.
The saga continues. An angel appears, zip-lining across the dark cavern, and at the “sound” of his trumpet, satan makes a hasty dive into the pit along with his demonic support staff. A crash, the paper stones are thrown into the pit, and the curtain falls. You have been warned.
Eventually the boats pop back up to the surface, releasing the sinners who naturally run around to buy another ten cent ticket. Hell Gate was a hugely popular attraction. The press ate it up, raving how wonderful it was. For the second season, the ride was upgraded with newer boats, a longer experience, and better effects. It also spawned a similar attraction called The End of the World.
All was just dandy until late one night in 1911. The park was set to open the following morning for the new season and workers were patching the boat trough. Apparently hot tar got knocked over, light bulbs began exploding for whatever reason, and everything—everything—went up in flames. As in the entire park. People came from all around to watch the spectacle. Dreamland was equipped with a state-of-the-art fire suppression system, a product of the region’s history with major fire issues. But as other nearby properties realized the danger, they also tapped into the water mains to hose their places down. The result was too little water pressure at the park, effectively dooming it to extinction. When reinforcements finally arrived, both on land and from fire-fighting ships, it was clearly a goner, so they focused attention on protecting everything else around it.
The tragedy, aside from losing an entire amusement park, of course, was the loss of animals caged at the park. Many were rescued, but several animals refused to budge while attempting to transfer them to their transport cages so they could be hauled away from danger. Others were set loose when someone opened a main gate. Additonal chaos erupted, animals started fighting, and a poor lion ran across the property, mane on fire, until someone shot it out of mercy. Thankfully, the exhibit holding premature babies in incubators (yes, that was a thing, believe it or not) was successfully evacuated.
Dreamland was never rebuilt. Financial records disclosed that it had operated deep in debt, owing to owner William Reynolds’ determination to out-do Luna Park. It never made any money, and there is speculation that the fire was not an accident, helping to rescue Reynolds and his financial situation. At any rate, as far as we’re concerned, Dreamland, along with the other parks in the Big Three, played its role in advancing the notion of a themed, immersive experience. This was an essential step in the evolution toward Disneyland and our beloved regional theme parks. So, thanks William. Sorry about your park, but hey, we’re pretty grateful.
Check out the photos of the attraction (such as there are), and dig into these sources for more details. The PDF below (third source) is especially interesting as it’s an original article by a Russian visitor who utterly disdained what he saw in Coney. But in spite of the bias, it’s full of first-hand details.